THE IMPENDING DEATH OF A ONCE-GREAT NEWSPAPER

JOHN McGURK 
So Scotland on Sunday, a newspaper I edited and fretted over every day for four years, has been declared “sub-core” by its owners which presumably means they despise it and want shot of it.

The paper has been placed in the same dustbin category as 58 other Johnston Press titles such as the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser, the East Fife Mail and the Glenrothes Gazette which also face extinction unless there’s a buyer which must be a very long shot indeed.

Less than 20 years ago, Scotland on Sunday was an award-winning powerhouse which was so successful that the then owners of The Glasgow Herald were forced into launching their own version to stem the threat of lost advertising.

In those glory days, it sold as many in the west as it did in the east managing to be a truly pan-Scottish title — a status which has never been achieved by either The Scotsman or The Herald.

Two weeks after the appearance of the Sunday Herald in 1999, Scotland on Sunday managed its best ever sale of 132,500 which, for a broadsheet in a very small country with the most competitive newspaper market in the world, was astonishing.

I returned from lunch to find a crate of champagne sitting on my desk along with a congratulatory note from the proprietor of the day, Aidan Barclay, who had believed in the potential of Scotland on Sunday by investing heavily in a two sparkling high quality magazines and three other new sections to accompany it.

The paper won the UK Sunday Newspaper of the Year title in 1997, 1998 and 2000 beating Fleet Street’s finest including The Sunday Times, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday while there were more national accolades for our use of photography, design and colour.

Writers such as Graham Spiers and Catherine Deveney seemed to be forever picking up individual awards.

We were very often in the thick of it and politicians of all sorts were rarely off the phone to spill the beans usually about their own colleagues rather than their rivals. First Ministers, or those vying for the job, could be particularly troublesome and wearisome.

Donald Dewar gave me a roasting for revealing that the new Scottish Parliament was way over budget. We had been tipped off that it would cost nearly five times the original price tag of £10 million but he was having none of it despite the fact that it eventually reached a staggering £450 million.

An incensed Henry McLeish was on the phone moaning about a critical leader while I was still in bed on a Sunday morning.

Jack McConnell agreed to spill the beans about his time as general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party and signed up for a three part series only to pull out when they discovered what he was gong to say and told him he would be de-selected as a prospective MSP.

Alex Salmond did complete his three-part serialisation about why he had given up the SNP leadership in 2000 and used the proceeds to install a new kitchen in his constituency home in Banff.

We went to war with Lord Robertson, then the Defence Secretary, who was so angry that he called Andrew Neil, the then publisher, and demanded that I be sacked.

Andrew, who was very good at sacking editors, paid no attention because the story was true but there were many other occasions when he was not so supportive. In those days, his bollockings were common-place and it was deeply depressing particularly when he was wrong and when sales were hitting new heights.

Today, Scotland on Sunday may well be another print victim of the digital age but it’s not as simple as that.

In recent years, the paper has been starved of resource, ambition and even a dedicated editor. It has been denuded and filleted with the aim of producing it as cheaply as possible.

It has worked as part of a seven-day operation with The Scotsman, an arrangement which could only succeed if Scotland on Sunday maintained its identity and did not have to rely on left-overs.

With no investment, its cover price has been deliberately jacked-up to squeeze every last drop of profit before the inevitable.

Alas, the harsh reality will be revealed in the six monthly ABC circulation figures, due in the next week or so, which are likely to reveal that the paper now sells below 20,000.

Johnston Press, in announcing their “sub-core” newspapers, have signalled that Scotland on Sunday is in its death throes but no-one appears to be objecting apart from the journalists’ union, therefore, the owners will be able proceed to the next stage without much opposition.

Scotland on Sunday has been graced by a raft of fine journalists since it was established in 1988; too many to mention.

Those I worked alongside in the hey-day of the newspaper— the likes of Iain Martin, Alan Cochrane, Kevin McKenna, Willie Paul and Iain Stewart — must also feel a certain sadness at the demise of their old paper particularly when so much effort, and often so much heartache, was spent to produce it.

The late Bert Hardy, then the managing director of The Scotsman Publications, used to say that a successful newspaper depended on a proprietor to love it and nurture it.

Johnston Press, an organisation ridden with debt and whose market value yesterday was just £38.12 million, has much to answer for.

 

John McGurk was editor of Scotland on Sunday from 1997-2001 and later became editor of The Scotsman and managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

jcmcgurk@blueyonder.co.uk

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  Comments: 5


  1. Spoken from the heart John!


  2. I’m not sure if the word “enjoyment” would best describe my reactions to reading your illuminating piece on the demise of, to quote many a footballer, the best Sunday newspaper I ever wanted to work for, but I was informed by your content. I was fortunate enough to have been there, working with you and others during some of the days you’ve discussed here. Looking on from afar in recent years, I had been wondering how long former colleagues like Ian would continue to be able to appear to be successful in putting the paper out with ever diminishing resources, and am saddened to see that its run may soon be truncated.
    You’ll know much better than me but I couldn’t recall if the papers were still printed through an in-house operation, or whether or not they’d already been outsourced to a contract printworks. If it’s the former, then surely as part of a seven-day operation, its production costs could be quite low, with any owners able to additionally value its paper costs through the fact they’d already paid for the printworks which would otherwise not be running on a Sunday. Combined with the generation of ready cash of more than £30,000 a week , do these two factors not make Scotland on Sunday a little bit more attractive to the Johnston Group and perhaps could see the paper perhaps continue to be produced for some time yet? Or is that wishful thinking?


  3. What a sad story – all too frequently repeated these days.


  4. Losing SoS is a disaster for what used to be called Civic Scotland.
    I worked there for the best part of ten years and delighted in SoS being the antidote to the dreariness of The Scotsman and Herald and cloying couthiness of the Courier and P&J.
    We took chances, we got sued by anyone worth their salt (though brilliant lawyers kept us out of jail) and defined a New Journalism that had a brief pre-millennial flowering before being crushed by the combined weight of toy town management and internet economics.
    The key was we had a purpose. Yes, we were insufferably smug in the bar after every expose, but with SoS on its heels the Establishment was always sipping its G&Ts nervously in the New Club.
    In today’s one party state we need a paper with the cutting edge of old-school SoS.
    It is hilarious that the Nats elsewhere in the comments are up in arms about the stance SoS took against them. Frankly, they got off lightly.
    My casual glimpses at the analysis on offer during the referendum campaign was depressing: the coverage concentrated on the political bun fight in the Holyrood bubble (easy to do with one political editor and a dog) rather than a piece-by-piece deconstruction of what was on offer from the whole parcel of political rogues.
    Contrast that with the great SoS campaigns of the past, such as “Scotching the Myth” (how Westminster spent our money on the DLR) or my own business team’s contribution, “The £10bn Tartan Tax Bombshell”, which exposed SNP and Scottish Labour fantasy economics.
    But Johnston Press seems to have lost the stomach for the fight against plummeting circulation. They will have looked at the money Andrew Neil spent on reaching record circulation figures and probably had a nose bleed. No, they have always preferred the small picture.
    If Andrew and the Barclays had not lost interest – and it is clear to anyone who was there why they did – we can only surmise how a meaningful post-internet broadsheet media for Scotland might have been forged.
    So, who wins with Scotland on Sunday’s impending demise? The no-names making up the Holyrood numbers, the back-scratching lobbyists? And, of course, the risible Sunday Herald gets what must surely be the last of its nine lives.
    And who loses? Everyone else.


  5. “132,500”
    I remember it well. I still have a copy of that issue

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